On Tuesday, Near South Side residents divided over the opening of a high school on the site of a popular elementary school have a chance to let district officials know how they feel about new attendance boundaries.
The 1,200 student Near South High School would open for the 2019-20 school year by the corner of State Street and Cermak Road, displacing National Teachers Academy, a top-ranked, mostly African-American elementary school whose supporters recently sued to halt Chicago Public Schools’ plans. The lawsuit alleges that the decision to close NTA violates the Illinois Civil Rights Act.
Members of the Gap community, a northeastern stretch of Bronzeville, had been left out of the proposed high school plan. But on Friday, CPS released an updated boundary map that included the attendance area for Pershing Elementary School, a neighborhood school serving Gap families.
“We’re pleased that they’ve listened to our outcry that we wanted to be included,” said Leonard McGee, president of the GAP Community Organization, which supports the new high school. “We’re still pushing until the board vote is done; anything can happen, we’re not resting on our laurels thinking it’s a done deal.”
He said his organization was “petitioning for children who aren’t even born, for kids who don’t even live in the area yet.”
“We’re looking at this high school as an opportunity for kids who aren’t even born yet to have access to a quality education, and that’s all it’s about,” he said, adding that the school would provide a high-quality option in a racially integrated setting.
At a public hearing last month, residents griped that the school would only serve 1,200 students, saying the need was greater and expressing fears of overcrowding. In a statement emailed to Chalkbeat Chicago, CPS said it determined that the boundary changes could be done without risking overcrowding. CPS spokesman Michael Passman said families “in the Near South Community,” have wanted a high-quality high school for years, and that the district is focused on opening the new high school to as many families as possible.
“We are pleased to be able to provide more Near South families with guaranteed access to a high-quality continuum of schools from pre-K through high school, and we look forward to continuing to work with the community to ensure the new school meets the needs of all local families,” Passman said.
But the boundary change doesn’t satisfy National Teachers Academy parents who are suing the district to stop the school’s closure, said Elisabeth Greer, chair of the academy’s Local School Council and the parent of two students at the school.
Greer called the new boundaries “CPS’ sad attempt to try to garner more support for this plan” among black parents on the Near South Side.
“This is a decision by CPS to listen to some voices in the community but not others,” Greer said, claiming that the “thousands” who support keeping National Teachers Academy open dwarf neighborhood proponents of the new high school. “This is what CPS does, pit communities against each other. It’s been primarily African-Americans who have stood up against this plan, and this is an attempt to split the black community and get some African-Americans to [support CPS].”
McGee disagreed, characterizing Greer’s statement as “trying to divide the community itself.”
“I’m not getting into why CPS did what they did,” he said. “I’m only advocating for what’s a good educational opportunity for people in the neighborhood.”
But, Greer wants to be clear: “We are not at war with each other in the community.”
“We don’t plan to go in tomorrow night and be angry with the Gap community, we’re going to be there to talk to our neighbors,” she said. “We shouldn’t be fighting over scraps, we should be demanding that our community deserves something bigger and better like a new high school from the ground up.”
While Leonard also said he’d be at the meeting to hear from other concerned community members, he takes issue with Greer’s framing, particularly the word “scraps.”
“Let me have my scraps, and let me decide the value of them,” he said. “In fact, to say that is an insult to me and my community.”
Last month at a public hearing, National Teachers Academy supporters spoke against the project, while residents of Chinatown spoke in favor, arguing that they’ve pushed the district for years for an open-enrollment high school in the area and expressing concerns about the quality and safety of current neighborhood schools.
But at the Chicago Board of Education meeting on July 23, at least one Chinatown community leader blasted CPS.Debbie Liu of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community mentioned Chinatown’s long history of advocating for a high school, but said CPS has gone about meeting those demands the wrong way.
“A 1,200-student capacity is only a stopgap measure compared to projected growth in Chinatown and nearby communities,” she said. “The turmoil we have in the Near South could have been prevented with a more transparent, long-term, equitable planning process.”
Some of the areas zoned for the new high school currently feed Phillips High School, which is under-enrolled, according to CPS.
Community residents will have a chance to chime in about the updated boundary on Tuesday, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the Second Presbyterian Church, 1936 S. Michigan Ave.